Disa uniflora
The red orchid of the Cape mountains.

One of our designs featuring Disa uniflora.One of our designs featuring Disa uniflora.

The beautiful red orchid or Disa grows on mountains near fresh streams in the Cape Province of South Africa. It is made to be the stuff of legend, and I hope you will find its story interesting.

The naming of the red orchid

The official name Disa uniflora was given to the flower by Peter Johan Bergius, a Swedish physician and botanist of the eighteenth century. There will be more in this inspiring character Bergius later in the article. The plant is also sometimes known by the name Disa grandiflora given by Bergius' teacher, the famous plant systematist Linnaeus. It was also named Satyrium grandiflora by Thunberg who collected for Linnaeus in South Africa, as the genus was only grouped in its present organization later

Disa uniflora is also known as pride of Table Mountain, the red disa, or rooi disa in Afrikaans.

Art and practices associated with Disa uniflora

In South Africa the Disa forms the focus of a ritual yearly pilgrimage by climbers to see the flower in bloom in its beautiful native habitat on the mountain top in summer. Its the closest we come to blossom viewing as a nation, I suppose.

The striking appearance of Disa uniflora has led to its image being used in logos. It is the emblem of The mountain Club of South Africa since its foundation in 1891, also the Western Province Rugby Team, and the Western Cape Gymnastics Association. It appears on the pro Merito Medal, a military medal for exceptional service created in 1975 under the Apartheid Government. This medal was taken over by the new government when the military incorporated Umkhonto we Sizwe and the Azanian People's Liberation Army, and it still exists.

The flower also appears on many postage stamps across the African continent, from Benin, Uganda and Zambia for example.

One of my first flower designs depicted the red orchid in a one color screen print which you can see in the black outlines in the design above. Digitization of the design allowed me to add a graded red. The design can be printed on  clothing, accessories and decor items and you can purchase it at this link.

The Disa is associated with Nordic myth as well as a haunting local folk legend which I will return to at the end of the article.

Disa uniflora in a Gothic-icon frameDisa uniflora in a Gothic-icon frame

The botanical relationships
of Disa uniflora

The center of Disa diversity is in the Western Cape of South Africa, with 144 species. The Disa is an orchid or from the family Orchidaceae. It is placed in the sub family Orchidoideae, which usually have a single erect anther and favour the growth of basal buds rather than budding at the extremities. The orchids belong in the order Asparagales. Many plants in this order have a tight cluster of leaves, like a rosette, and the flowers are of a general lily type with six tepals, rather than petals. It is a very important order economically, as it includes not just the Asparagus family, but the onion family, and freesias, gladioli, irises, day lilies, agapanthus, as well as Agave and Yucca.

The original design printed in black only on a table cloth.The Disa uniflora design printed in black only on a table cloth.

The appearance of Disa uniflora

Disa uniflora has bold, bright red, sometimes pink, rarely yellow sepals. The flower stalk can bear one to three blooms up to 10 cm across. The middle sepal is upright, slightly paler, and marked with red veins. The other flanking sepals can point obliquely downwards, or horizontally. The actual petals are hidden in the flower, and are yellow with red spots at their tips. It flowers in summer from December to March, peaking in January to mid February. The seeds are dispersed by running water, and it can also spread vegetatively by stolons. These, and the leaves, often die back after flowering to feed the growth of fresh sprouts and stolons. It is basically evergreen, however.

Where does the wild Disa bloom ?

The genus has a range of from Ethiopia south to the tip of Africa, and as far East as Yemen and Madagascar. The species Disa uniflora is restricted to the coastal, frost free or light frost areas of winter rainflall in the south western Cape from Hermanus through to the Cedarberg. It is rarely seen further south on the Cape Peninsula than the back table. It is found high on sand stone mountains such as Table Mountain and other Cape Mountains, in areas which are moist year round, along stream banks, in the spray of waterfalls, on wet cliffs, or near springs and in seeps. It never grows along the shore of manmade dams, as water levels vary too much. As is natural for cliff and stream growing plants, it grows either in shade or sunlight, morning or afternoon sun, and likes bright lght. 

Growing Disa uniflora

Growing Disa uniflora is classed as challenging. They do best in frost free or light frost zones, in a cool environment with average tmeperatures from 10-26 Celcius although they can take 30 Celcius in summer if they have sufficient water, humidity and air movement.

These conditions seem to be self contradictory in a nursery or glass house, but they occur naturally in the mountain wilds.

The need a well drained coarse medium allowing the flow of water, nutrients and air, enjoy partial shade, morning or afternoon sun, not both, and need good light to develop flowers and color.

They can be reproduced vegetatively. Divide the stolons after flowering, separating them carefully.

Sow seed in peat or sphagnum moss covering washed river sand. Lightly spray the moss with fungicide and cover with plastic or glass until the seedlings are big enough to plant on. Place the covered pots in a shady position. The seeds should germinate in four weeks. Keep the pots in a tray of water. Inspect them regularly for fungus and treat with fungicide. Prick out the seedlings at one year into a medium of half coarse washed river sand and half peat.

Grow the Disas under shade. They will grow rapidly in the second year and flower in the third. Never let the roots dry out, but don't overwater them or let the water stagnate. Use water of pH 5 – 6.8. Tap water must be left overnight for chlorine to evaporate before it comes near the Disas.

Something an expert Disa
grower recommended

The above instructions are from the SANBI website. Louis Vogelpoel, the chairman of the Disa Society in the nineties, took Disa culture to extremes. He was a Disa breeder, and had a massive Disa house in his garden.

He taught Disa growers to do a whole lot more than stand the pots in water. He recommended imitating the growing conditions in the wild in the following manner: Firstly, only using distilled water, as the Disa is watered by rain that falls on the mountain, or that has filtered through rocks and is very pure. Secondly, he placed the Disas on a gently sloping bed of pebbles. One should take care what kind of pebbles, and that they do not make the pH high. He placed the pots just touching a constant flow of water on this gently sloping tray. The water flow must have been driven by a pump.This was as close as one could get to a mountain stream in the wild.

I don't remember if the water in his system was cooled, or if the Disa house was shaded, or whether he used mineral supplements to feed them. However I do remember him saying that once his special conditions were met they are less demanding, less prone to disease. It makes sense. The water in his system would be pure, de chlorinated, highly oxygenated and could not stagnate. Actually the water circulation would constitute a kind of biofilter, cleaning up organic contaminants,  and producing some acidity from leaching organic material. The water would be cooled by constant movement, and prehaps dissolve some of the minerals from the pebbles. Disas are supposed to have special mineral requirements. Perhaps once this setup is in place they are less trouble. I have never tried it.

I only went to one meeting, and took home a free gift of a Disa uniflora, which promtly died, and I don't remember the rest of his growing requirements, so we have to revert to the instructions on the SANBI website for what follows.

Feeding and treating Disa uniflora

SANBI says one should feed regularly with dilute balanced fertilizer. Orchid fertilizers or organic fertilizers like Seagro can be used. If they yellow and look stunted give a trace element feeder. Check for aphids, red spider and thrips. The last two appear when its warm. Also check for vulnerabiliy to fungus like Fusarium which rots roots and stems, by inspecting regularly and treating when needed.

The roots contain a plant sugar called maltodextrin. I guess this would culture fungus easily. However, in the wild the stolons and shoots do rot away to provide nutrients and room for new ones. Once again, things are contradictory, showing that Disa culture requires extreme sensitivity to what is actually happening to the plant, vigilance and special handling.

Disa uniflora pollination

The only pollinator is Meneris tulbaghia also known as Aeropetes tulbaghia. It is a brown butterfly with rows of pale bands on the wing edges and some blue dots on the rear wings. It is called the Mountain Pride butterfly. It features on a postage stamp of Lesotho.

It is the sole pollinator, not only of Disa uniflora but some other plants which exhibit convergent evolution with red coloring, nectar and nectary shape. The butterfly is attracted to the colour red and it is postulated that the 15 plants it pollinates shifted over from other pollinators as the red color is rare and pollination is very efficient. Some of the other red flowers in pollinates are Crassula coccinea and Disa ferruginea. The pollination was first observed by Rudolf Marloth in the 19th C.

Other disas have adapted for pollination by sunbirds, carpenter bees, long tongued flies or moths, with many cases of convergent evolution and single pollinators. These pollinators are keystone species as their demise leads to extinction of the plants they pollinate in the wild.

Forces threatening Disa uniflora

Although it has a status of least concern among threatened plants, the Disa was once very plentiful on Table Mountain along a stream on the back table. Percy Fiitzpatrick, the author of Jock of the Bushveld and a naturalist described the back table as covered in a scarlet blanket of Disas in February.

Then they built the Woodhead dam to harness the stream and supply Cape Town with clear spring water. The Woodhead dam has since become too small for our needs and is largely redundant, but the fields of Disas are gone. Many were also shipped overseas for European collections during the 19th Century.

Peter Johan Bergius
The botanist who named
Disa uniflora

Sometimes it is worthy digging into the stories of the people behind the naming of the plants by science. They were a motley crew of scientists, adventurers and passionate collectors. Their stories can offer inspiration, or insight. Often they cast a spotlight on the era of colonialism. One sees the details of the amassing of vast plant collections in Europe of the plants of the south, and the plants' estrangement from the indigenous people who were best aquainted with them.

As the plants joined the great European collections, they were ripped free of their cultural roots and a new history overwrote the millennia-old stories and practical uses these plants had amassed in their natural habitat. A flower as unique and beautiful as the Disa uniflora must have struck awe into all who beheld it, and it must have had a prominent symbolic status, but its meaning for the past inhabitants of the Southern tip of Africa was buried by colonial history.

Peter Johan Bergius who described and named Disa uniflora with the name that has stood the test of time in European botany, is an interesting character. Born in 1730 and studying from the age of sixteen as they did in those days, he wanted to study medicine. He became a disciple of Linnaeus while a student. Later he was a very successful doctor. His brother Bengt was a banker and they made a forutne, bought property and left a trust. There is an element of grandiosity in the story of P.J. Bergius' success and career which I will refrain from adding to, but the breadth of his interest is inspiring.

What is interesting for me are details and hints which flesh out the subject of this website, permaculture and agro-ecology. The story shows how minds of that time were able to connect fields as apparently disparate as epidemiology and botany, without being accused of being scattered, or instructed by academia or internet gurus to niche down. Since long before the times of monastery medicine in the middle ages, medical students were also familiar with the pharmacopoeia of medicinal plants, and this persisted until the second world war. Pharamacopoeia of the 1930s were 95% plant based. That is how quickly the composition of drugs has shifted towards what they are today. Therefore Linnaeus, the father of modern botany, found his disciples in the medical school of Uppsala. This is how Bergius and Linnaeus met. Another field which came under the umbrella of medicine was natural-history, connecting these young doctor-botanists with early support of the theory of evolution.

Bergius wrote his dissertation on smallpox, and then proceeded to attain fame in his practice in Stockholm, helping the poor and probably the rich too. At 28 years of age he was already a famous doctor in his country and he was appointed to the Royal Academy of Sciences.

He wrote many books on many topics, such as smallpox, inoculation (of which he was a pioneer), states of illness, Swedish epidemiology and a history of Swedish doctors from the 15th Centruy onward. Books on medicinal plants (his famous Materia Medica 1778), and a book on pomology were among his 30 botanical publications.. His Plantae Capensis 1767 on the Cape Flora describes 14 Genera and 130 species not yet included in Linnaeus' system. He never visited the Cape. The specimens were provided by Michael Grubb, an official with the East India Company.

The Bergielund botanic garden
and herbarium

On their property, eventually over 7 hectares, in the outskirts of Stockholm, the present Vasaparken, the brothers Bergius built a botanic garden called Bergielund, and a herbarium. These were given over to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences on Peter Johannes' death in 1790. This is the same Academy which elects Nobel Prize laureates.

Students of historic gardens can enthuse over this interesting institution, founded not by a royal, but by two largely self made brothers who started off as privileged orphans. Rather than making collecting trips on behalf of Linneaus, Bergius chose to pursue a successful career as a doctor and use that to fund his own herbarium. Before this he had worked on the herbarium at the Serafimer Hospital.

The botanic garden included not only an Herbarium, but a commercial horticulture enterprise, and a horticulture school which remained the place to go till it was closed in the latter half of the twentieth century as public horticultural training became available. On the site were plantations, greenhouses, a tobacco barn and a mansion, and they had many employees. Much later, after the brothers were no more, an orangerie, conservatory and Japanese pond were added.

The professors Bergianus

In accordance with the will of Peter Johan Bergius, an appointed 'professor Bergianus' has been the caretaker of the garden since. This supervision continued when the garden was moved as Stockholm developed, to a new site at in an area called Frescati. This was named after the famous villa Frescati which stood there. The garden was also home to the Royal Swedish Agriculture Academy's experimental station, and later Stockholm university, which manages the garden today.

The garden heads have been experts on mosses, orchids, ferns, willows, mycology, paleobotany, gymnosperms, brassicas, molecular phylogenetics and pomology. The garden houses the clone archive of Nordic apple trees, and is the protector of 45 old apple varieties. There is a strong art connection, with some of the garden heads being academic botanists-illustrators, such as Olaf Schwartz, and others having several painters in the family, such as Nils Andersson. The first female head of the garden was one of the first scientists to use DNA to remap the phylogenetic relationships between plants, and was also an expert on subtropical and tropical plants and the coffee family. One of the garden heads was involved in a curious project, the naming of regional provincial flowers by gramamr school botany teachers in Sweden. These symbols of the provinces are still used today.

The Disa uniflora in
history and legend

As we can see from the story Bergius and Bergielund, the collection of the Disa has a rich tapestry of history into which it integrates, but it would be greatly enriched by the lost story of the Disa, its significance to people who knew Table Mountain millenia before any white man landed in Table Bay.

The Disa genus was first named by Thunberg who traveled extensively in the Cape back in the day when Khoekhoegowab in various forms was more widely spoken in the interior. However, he named this species Satyrium grandiflora, so that Thunberg himself never associated Disa uniflora with Queen Disa, and no indigenous stories about the red orchid were recorded.

Nonetheless the European and settler stories offer truly dramatic material.

Queen Disa in Nordic mythology

The name Disa refers to the legendary Queen Disa. She is the heroine of a Swedish legend about a very clever maiden who lived in the times when there was still human interaction with the Nordic gods. This maiden was a type of revolutionary. She spoke out against the King's decision to sacrifice the old people of the land in order to avoid famine. She was challenged by King Freyhr to present herself to him traveling neither on foot or by horse, by wagon or by boat, and neither dressed or undressed. She took the journey on a sled pulled by young men, with one foot on a goat, and dressed in a fishing net. Obviously the god-king was smitten with her beauty and intelligence and she became queen and judge-counselor for the people. Authorship claims the Swedish botanist Thunberg named the genus after her because of the veined net like appearance of the tepalsof many Disas.

Disa uniflora
and the hex of Hex River

Then there is another story, a settler's tale from the rural Cape. It is more commonly called the hex of Hex River legend. An exceptionally beautiful young maiden, Aliza Meiring, was surrounded by many suitors. Perhaps because she was vain, perhaps to fend off all the attention, she challenged the suitors to bring her a fresh disa flower. To do this they had to climb to the summit of the Matroosberg, the second hightest peak in the Cape. Her favourite suitor fell to his death and was found clutching the flower in his hand. She went mad with grief and continually wanted to search for him, believing him still alive, and her parents had to lock her up in her room. Here the stories diverge, suggesting that this tale is not based in fact but on another legend. Some raconteurs say that she escaped and set off for the mountains and fell to her death, others that she fell out of her own bedroom window and likewise perished. Some say she carved her name and the date 1868 on the window pane, and others on the wooden window frame. This signature has of course disappeared. Both tales concur in that she still haunts the mountain slopes veiled in white mist, searching for her lover.

Between the two tales of
Disa uniflora may lie a third

The commonalities in both stories are a headstrong maiden of outstanding beauty and or intelligence, and a dangerous challenge. I have seen the Disa flowering in the wild, emerging from a thick bed of restios and reeds along a mountaintop stream. Its singular appearance startles one. It has a poignancy, and if one were to anthropomorphize, it reminds one of veins and blood more than a fishing net.

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